Plenty of blame to spread around

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The peace process launched in Washington on September 1 essentially collapsed before it began. The failure lies with all three principal parties: Israel, the PLO and the United States. It is at once a failure of substance and of process.

At the most comprehensive level of substance, the ambitious goal of ending the entire conflict within a year, proclaimed by the Obama administration and the Quartet and endorsed by both Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, is totally unrealistic, thereby putting undue pressure on the negotiating parties. Following upon the administration’s misguided and myopic focus on a settlement freeze, it casts heavy doubt on Washington’s grasp of this conflict. One wonders whether a more modest objective of defining the borders of a Palestinian state within a year might not have set the process on more stable ground.

In parallel, at the most detailed level of process, it was clear from the outset that none of the three parties had a formula for bypassing or otherwise neutralizing the expiration of the settlement construction freeze on September 26. Certainly the Obama administration offered no such solution. It apparently hoped, without foundation, that the very fact of direct talks would soften Israeli and Palestinian intransigence on the issue. But for political or perhaps ideological reasons, Netanyahu could not or would not renege on his commitment to his right-wing coalition to end the freeze as promised, particularly after the first nine months of the freeze had failed to persuade the PLO to enter into direct and active negotiations. And Abbas, having dithered throughout those nine months under pressure from virtually all Palestinian factions–from Hamas to the secular left–not to negotiate without a permanent freeze, could hardly capitulate at this juncture.

Perhaps even more pathetic is the current US effort to entice Netanyahu into an additional, final freeze of two or three months so the direct talks can resume. What could be accomplished in two months that would save this process? The link between this time-span and the November 2 midterm elections in the US is painfully transparent.

Meanwhile, the very failure of this brief process has generated a flurry of internal Israeli and Palestinian and even inter-Arab dynamics that bespeak instability and disarray and bode ill for future negotiations. Netanyahu has embraced highly problematic initiatives by the most narrow-minded members of his coalition to legislate loyalty oaths and referendums on future territorial concessions. He stands idly by while his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, contradicts the prime minister’s declared peace policies at the United Nations and insults European dignitaries who come to offer help. But he also meets for the first time in months with opposition leader Tzipi Livni, as unrest peaks within the Labor party and speculation grows that the coalition is beginning to fall apart under the pressures of this peace process.

Of course, Netanyahu could be trying to buy off his right-wing opposition; or he could be fishing for an excuse to extend the freeze; or, alternatively, he might be circling the wagons to rebuff an increasingly hostile international community. Israel’s current political reality is too murky to tell. One thing is certain: Netanyahu’s choice of a right-wing coalition is incompatible with his ostensible decision to opt for a two-state solution. Here, yet again, we confront the toxic interaction between Israel’s dysfunctional political system and the Palestinian issue.

The Palestinian contribution to the current impasse is hardly less significant. Abbas’ internal Palestinian political position is apparently so weak that he elected, for the second time since the current process began, to yield his decision-making responsibilities regarding negotiations to the Arab League. Ten months ago the League vacillated in its response, in effect telling Abbas the decision about entering indirect negotiations was up to him. This time it responded by giving him a month’s extension in the hope that a compromise could be found. Abbas has also, not for the first time, threatened to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority, thereby adding a potential escalatory dimension to the conflict by forcing Israel to either renew its rule over the entire West Bank or acquiesce in some sort of international mandate.

Considering that the late Yasser Arafat even spilled Arab blood to guarantee the "independence of Palestinian decision-making" in the face of repeated Arab state attempts to manipulate the Palestinians’ fate, Abbas faces heavy internal criticism over his new reliance on the League. Thus the Palestinian capacity to embrace the demands of a new peace process appears to be as weak as that of Israel under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the stewardship of Obama, Clinton and Mitchell clearly suffers from a failure to recognize what, if anything, is feasible and what is delusional in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

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